It’s wise to reserve at least your first few nights’ accommodation before arrival, especially at the cheaper hostels and minshuku (family-run B&B-style inns) in Tokyo and Kyoto, where budget places are scarce. If you do arrive without a reservation, make use of the free accommodation booking services in Narita and Kansai International airports.
Once in Japan, book one or two days ahead to ensure that your selected targets aren’t full. Outside peak season, however, you’ll rarely be stuck for accommodation. Around major train stations there’s usually a clutch of business hotels and a tourist information desk – the majority will make a booking for you.
Most large- and medium-sized hotels in big cities have English-speaking receptionists who’ll take a booking over the phone. The cheaper and more rural the place, however, the more likely you are to have to speak in Japanese, or a mix of Japanese and English. Don’t be put off: armed with the right phrases (see LanguageJapanese), and speaking slowly and clearly, you should be able to make yourself understood – many of the terms you’ll need are actually English words pronounced in a Japanese way. If you’re having difficulty, the staff at your current accommodation may be able to help. Booking online is an option, with the advantage that you’ll often get a slightly lower room rate; major chains and places that receive a lot of foreign guests generally have an English-language page.
Almost without exception, security is not a problem, though it’s never sensible to leave valuables lying around in your room. In hostels, it’s advisable to use lockers, if provided, or leave important items at the reception desk. Standards of service and cleanliness vary according to the type of establishment, but are usually more than adequate. Check-in is generally between 3pm and 7pm, and check-out by 10am.
While credit cards are becoming more widely accepted, in many cases payment is still expected in cash. In hostels and many cheaper business hotels, you’ll be expected to pay when you check in.
While all hotel rates must include eight-percent consumption tax, there are a couple of other taxes to look out for. Most top-end hotels add a service charge of ten to fifteen percent, while in Tokyo the Metropolitan Government levies a tax of ¥100 per person per night in rooms that cost over ¥10,000 per person per night (or ¥200 if the room costs over ¥15,000); check to make sure if these are included in the published room rate. In hot-spring resorts, there’s a small onsen tax (usually ¥150), though again this may already be included in the rates. And it’s always worth asking when booking if there are any deals, usually referred to as “plans”, such as special weekend rates at business hotels.
Tipping is not necessary, nor expected, in Japan. The only exception is at high-class Japanese ryokan, where it’s good form to leave ¥2000 for the room attendant – put the money in an envelope and hand it over discreetly at the end of your stay.
Online accommodation resources
There are a number of general booking and information sites, the best of which are listed.
Ikyu ikyu.com. Japanese-only site offering heavily discounted rooms at nearly one thousand top-class hotels and ryokan.
Japan Hotel Association j-hotel.or.jp. Covering most major cities, though the hotels tend to be part of big, expensive chains. Lots of information provided.
Japan Hotel Net japanhotel.net. Offering a good range of accommodation nationwide, with a special section on ski resorts. Lots of information, including photos.
JAPANiCAN japanican.com. Good deals on around four thousand hotels, ryokan and tours across the country.
Japan Ryokan Association ryokan.or.jp. Around 1200 ryokan and hotels offering Japanese-style accommodation, many of them with onsen baths. Links take you to the relevant homepage, and there’s plenty of background information about staying in ryokan.
Japanese Guest Houses japaneseguesthouses.com. Over 550 ryokan – from humble to grand – across the country. Also offer cultural tours in Kyoto.
Japanese Inn Group japaneseinngroup.com. A long-established association of about eighty good-value ryokan and minshuku.
The Ryokan Collection ryokancollection.com. Book one of 29 specially selected top ryokan, grouped in six locations across Japan.
Travel Rakuten travel.rakuten.co.jp/en. Pick of the local booking sights with great discounts on published rates and the broadest selection of properties.
Most Western-style hotel rooms have en-suite bathrooms, TV, phone and air conditioning as standard; there’s usually high-speed internet access too, sometimes through LAN only if there’s no wi-fi. Don’t expect a lot of character, however, especially among the older and cheaper business hotels, although things are slowly beginning to improve and even relatively inexpensive chains are now smartening up their act.
Rates for a double or twin room range from an average of ¥30,000 at a top-flight hotel, to ¥15,000–20,000 for a smartish establishment, which will usually have a restaurant and room service. At the lowest level, a room in a basic hotel with minimal amenities will cost ¥5000–10,000. Charges are almost always on a per-room basis and usually exclude meals, though breakfast may occasionally be included. Single room rates usually range from just over half to three-quarters the price of a double. Most hotels offer non-smoking rooms and some have “ladies’ floors”.
Modest business hotels constitute the bulk of the middle and lower price brackets. Primarily designed for those travelling on business and usually clustered around train stations, they are perfect if all you want is a place to crash out, though at the cheapest places you may find just a box with a tiny bed, a desk and a chair crammed into the smallest possible space. While the majority of rooms are single, most places have a few twins, doubles or “semi-doubles” – a large single bed which takes two at a squeeze. Squeeze is also the operative word for the aptly named “unit baths”, which business hotels specialize in; these moulded plastic units contain a shower, bathtub, toilet and washbasin but leave little room for manoeuvre. That said, some business hotels are relatively smart and there are a number of reliable chains including Tōyoko Inn (toyoko-inn.com), which has scores of hotels across the country, offering a simple breakfast and free internet connections in their room rates. More upmarket are Washington Hotels (wh-rsv.com/english) and the Solare group (solarehotels.com), which encompasses Chisun business hotels and the smarter Loisir and Solare Collection chains. Some have smoking and non-smoking floors.
Catering mainly for commuters – often in various states of inebriation – who have missed their last train home are capsule hotels; you’ll find them mostly near major stations. Inside are rows of tube-like rooms, roughly 2m long, 1m high and 1m wide; despite their “coffin-like” reputation, they can feel surprisingly comfy, with a mattress, bedding, phone, alarm and TV built into the plastic surrounds. The “door” consists of a flimsy curtain, which won’t keep out the loudest snores, and they are definitely not designed for claustrophobics. However, they’re relatively cheap at ¥2500–4000 per night, and fun to try at least once, though the majority are for men only. You can’t stay in the hotel during the day – not that you’d want to – but you can leave luggage in their lockers. Check-in usually starts around 4pm and often involves buying a ticket from a vending machine in the lobby. Rates generally include a yukata (cotton dressing gown), towel and toothbrush set, and many establishments have onsen-like communal bathing facilities. Kyoto and Osaka offer a couple of stylish modern takes on the capsule hotel that are worth trying, while recent years have seen a few cabin hotels enter the market. These are just like the capsules, but with a tiny bit of attached space for you to stand, and occasionally an internet-ready computer terminal to boot.
Love hotels – where you can rent rooms by the hour – are another quintessential Japanese experience. Generally located in entertainment districts, they are immediately recognizable from the sign outside quoting prices for “rest” or “stay”, and many sport ornate exteriors. Some can be quite sophisticated: the main market is young people or married couples taking a break from crowded apartments. All kinds of tastes can be indulged at love hotels, with rotating beds in mirror-lined rooms now decidedly passé in comparison with some of the fantasy creations on offer. Some rooms even come equipped with video cameras so you can take home a souvenir DVD of your stay. You usually choose your room from a back-lit display indicating those still available, and then negotiate with a cashier lurking behind a tiny window (eye-to-eye contact is avoided to preserve privacy). Though “rest” rates are high (from about ¥5000 for 2hr), the price of an overnight stay can cost the same as a business hotel (roughly ¥8000–10,000), although you usually can’t check in until around 10pm. To learn more about love hotels buy the photo book Love Hotels by Ed Jacob (quirkyjapan.or.tv/lovehotelbookintro.htm).
A night in a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan, is one of the highlights of a visit to Japan. The best charge five-star hotel rates, but there are plenty where you can enjoy the full experience at affordable prices. Cheaper are minshuku, family-run guesthouses, and the larger government-owned kokuminshukusha (people’s lodges) located in national parks and resort areas. In addition, some temples and shrines offer simple accommodation, or you can arrange to stay with a Japanese family through the homestay programme.
It’s advisable to reserve at least a day ahead and essential if you want to eat in. Though a few don’t take foreigners, mainly through fear of language problems and cultural faux pas, you’ll find plenty that do listed in the Guide chapters. JNTO also publishes useful lists of ryokan and distributes brochures of the Japanese Inn Group, which specializes in inexpensive, foreigner-friendly accommodation.
Rooms in a typical ryokan are generally furnished with just a low table and floor cushions sitting on pale green rice-straw matting (tatami) and a hanging scroll – nowadays alongside a TV and phone – decorating the alcove (tokonoma) on one wall. Though you’ll increasingly find a toilet and washbasin in the room, baths are generally communal. The rules of ryokan etiquette (see Staying in Japanese-style accommodation) may seem daunting, but overall these are great places to stay.
Room rates vary according to the season, the grade of room, the quality of meal you opt for and the number of people in a room; prices almost always include breakfast and an evening meal. Rates are usually quoted per person and calculated on the basis of two people sharing. One person staying in a room will pay slightly more than the advertised per-person price; three people sharing a room, slightly less. On average, a night in a basic ryokan will cost between ¥8000 and ¥10,000 per head, while a classier establishment, perhaps with meals served in the room, will cost up to ¥20,000. Top-rank ryokan with exquisite meals and the most attentive service imaginable can cost upwards of ¥50,000 per person.
At cheaper ryokan, it’s possible to ask for a room without meals, though this is frowned on at the more traditional places and, anyway, the delicious multicourse meals are often very good value. If you find miso soup, cold fish and rice a bit hard to tackle in the morning, you might want to opt for a Western breakfast, if available.
Minshuku and kokuminshukusha
There’s a fine line between the cheapest ryokan and a minshuku. In general, minshuku are smaller and less formal than ryokan: more like staying in a private home, with varying degrees of comfort and cleanliness. All rooms will be Japanese-style, with communal bathrooms and dining areas. A night in a minshuku will cost from around ¥4500 per person excluding meals, or from ¥6000 with two meals; rates are calculated in the same way as for ryokan.
In country areas and popular resorts, you’ll also find homely guesthouses called pensions –a word borrowed from the French. Though the accommodation and meals are Western-style, these are really minshuku in disguise. They’re family-run – generally by young couples escaping city life – and specialize in hearty home cooking. Rates average around ¥8000 per head, including dinner and breakfast.
In the national parks, onsen resorts and other popular tourist spots, minshuku and pensions are supplemented by large, government-run kokuminshukusha, which cater to family groups and tour parties. They’re often quite isolated and difficult to get to without your own transport. The average cost of a night’s accommodation is around ¥8000 per person, including two meals.
Temples and shrines
A few Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines take in regular guests for a small fee, and some belong to the Japanese Inn Group or the Japan Youth Hostels association. By far the best places to experience temple life are at the Buddhist retreat of Kōya-san and in Kyoto’s temple lodges.
Though the accommodation is inevitably basic, the food can be superb, especially in temple lodgings (shukubō), where the monks serve up delicious vegetarian cuisine (shōjin ryōri). In many temples, you’ll also be welcome to attend the early-morning prayer ceremonies. Prices vary between ¥4000 and ¥10,000 per person, with no meals or perhaps just breakfast at lower rates.
Japan has over four hundred hostels spread throughout the country, offering cheap accommodation. The majority of hostels are well run, clean and welcoming, with the best housed in wonderful old farmhouses or temples, often in great locations.
There are two main types of hostel in Japan. Increasing in number every year are private establishments, which tend to be far friendlier affairs than those run by the government or Japan Youth Hostels (JYH; jyh.or.jp), which is affiliated to Hostelling International (HI; hihostels.com). The JYH hostels generally impose a six-night maximum stay, evening curfews and a raft of regulations. Membership cards are not required at government or private hostels, but all JYH ask for a current Youth Hostel card. Non-members have to buy a “welcome stamp” (¥600) each time they stay at a JYH hostel; six stamps within a twelve-month period entitles you to the Hostelling International card. JNTO offices abroad and around Japan stock a free map that gives contact details of all JYH hostels.
The average price of hostel accommodation ranges from around ¥2000 per person for a dorm bed up to ¥5500 for a private room; this means that once you’ve included meals, a night at a private room in a hostel may work out only slightly less expensive than staying at a minshuku, or a night at a business hotel. Rates at some hostels increase during peak holiday periods.
It’s essential to make reservations well in advance for the big-city hostels and during school vacations: namely, New Year, March, around Golden Week (late April to mid-May), and in July and August. At other times, it’s a good idea to book ahead, since hostels in prime tourist spots are always busy; some close for a day or two in the off season, and others for the whole winter. If you want an evening meal, you also need to let them know a day in advance. Hostel accommodation normally consists of either dormitory bunks or shared Japanese-style tatami rooms, with communal bathrooms and dining areas. An increasing number also have private or family rooms, but these tend to fill up quickly. Bedding is provided. The majority of hostels have laundry facilities and internet access; wi-fi is usually a given these days and almost always free, though there’s occasionally a small charge for using the hostel’s own computer terminals.
At the JYH and government hostels, optional meals are sometimes offered; these vary in quality, though can be pretty good value. Dinner will generally be Japanese-style, while breakfast frequently includes bread, jam and coffee, sometimes as part of a buffet. Some hostels have a basic kitchen.
Check-in is generally between 3pm and 8pm; you sometimes have to vacate the building during the day (usually by 10am at JYH hostels).
Camping and mountain huts
There are thousands of campsites (kyampu-jō) scattered throughout Japan, with prices ranging from nothing up to ¥5000 or more to pitch a tent. In some places, you’ll also pay an entry fee of a few hundred yen per person, plus charges for water and cooking gas. In general, facilities are pretty basic compared with American or European sites; many have no hot water, for example, and the camp shop may stock nothing but Pot-Noodles. Most sites only open during the summer months, when they’re packed out with students and school parties.
JNTO publishes lists of selected campsites, or ask at local tourist offices. If you haven’t got your own tent, you can often hire everything on site or rent simple cabins from around ¥2500 – check before you get there. The best sites are in national parks and can be both time-consuming and costly to get to unless you have your own transport. Sleeping rough in national parks is banned, but elsewhere in the countryside camping wild is tolerated. However, it’s advisable to choose an inconspicuous spot – don’t put your tent up till dusk and leave early in the morning. Pitch too early or wake too late, and don’t be too surprised if worried locals alert the local police to your presence (though as long as you’ve got your passport handy, you should be fine).
In the main hiking areas, you’ll find a good network of mountain huts (yama-goya). These range from basic shelters to much fancier places with wardens and meals. Huts get pretty crowded in summer and during student holidays; count on at least ¥5000 per head, including two meals. Many places will also provide a picnic lunch. You can get information about mountain huts from local tourist offices.
There’s plenty of long-term rental accommodation available in Japan, making it a relatively easy and affordable country in which to set up home.
Newcomers who arrive without a job, or are not on some sort of expat package that includes accommodation, usually start off in what’s known as a gaijin house (foreigner house). Located in Tokyo, Kyoto and other cities with large foreign populations, these are shared apartments with a communal kitchen and bathroom, ranging from total fleapits to the almost luxurious. They’re usually rented by the month, though if there’s space, weekly or even nightly rates may be available. You’ll find gaijin houses advertised in the English-language press, or simply ask around. Monthly rates for a shared apartment in Tokyo start at ¥30,000–40,000 per person if you share a room, and ¥50,000–60,000 for your own room. A deposit may also be required.
The alternative is a private apartment. These are usually rented out by real estate companies, though you’ll also find places advertised in the media. Unfortunately, some landlords simply refuse to rent to non-Japanese. Some rental agencies specialize in dealing with foreigners, or you could ask a Japanese friend or colleague to act as an intermediary. When you’ve found a place, be prepared to pay a deposit of one to two months’ rent in addition to the first month’s rent, key money (usually one or two months’ non-refundable rent when you move in) and a month’s rent in commission to the agent. You may also be asked to provide information about your financial situation and find someone – generally a Japanese national – to act as a guarantor. The basic monthly rental in Tokyo starts at ¥50,000–60,000 per month for a one-room box, and upwards of ¥100,000 for somewhere more comfortable with a separate kitchen and bathroom.
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